I suspect this will be the hardest episode this series for me to write about. Normally there is something interesting to say about an episode, even if only about how it failed. And more importantly, normally I have something *different* to say from what other people are saying. But this time, my reaction can be summed up in the same sentence everyone else is using:

It’s not as bad as I expected, apart from the ending.

Chris Chibnall is a terrible writer. You can tell this, because in a recent Pravda Doctor Who Magazine he was referred to as a genius four times, and they reserve that word for the worst of the worst. In fact, the consensus among fans is that Chibnall may be the worst writer ever to have worked on the show. There are a number of flaws that show up over and again in Doctor Who writers — occasional misogyny, a belief that the most cliched ‘sci fi’ ideas ever are new and original, a love of violence for its own sake, pointless continuity references and plots that don’t hold together. What these all have in common is that they go against the spirit of the show at its best, and Chibnall exhibits all these flaws pretty much every time he sits down at his keyboard.

But this time, he was, for the most part, competent, even quite good.

This week’s story was, of course, flawed, but its flaws were all flaws that are common to the whole Moffat-produced series — scientific terminology used more or less at random, the only new female character being beautiful, sarcastic and violent (there is nothing wrong with this as a type of character, but under Moffat the men get a choice of about four personalities, while the women have to just share the one between them. This is still better than much genre TV, though, where the idea of women having a personality at all is apparently dangerously modern), and an obstacle is put in place and immediately resolved (the ship needing two pilots with similar genes) when neither the obstacle nor the resolution actually make much sense or advance the story much. The attempts at humour pretty much all fall flat, too, though Mark Williams manages to at least put in a Mark Williams performance. I’m also sick of this version of the Doctor seeming childishly terrified of sexually aggressive women.

But most of the faults can be handwaved, or even work to the story’s advantage. Amy saying she ‘learned all about’ Nefertiti at school seems fairly unlikely, for example — there’s not much *to* learn about Nefertiti, because as far as we can tell there’s little she actually did other than support her husband as he temporarily transitioned Egyptian religion from a polytheistic one to monolatrous Aten-worship, which as far as I know isn’t on the national curriculum. But it’s already been established that Amy’s favourite book as a child was the story of Pandora’s Box and she has a fetish for Roman soldiers, so it’s perfectly in character.

And in some ways this story was rather better put together than we had any right to expect. Putting together two old Doctor Who concepts — the ark in space (as seen in stories like The Ark and The Ark In Space) and the Silurians — should seem obvious, but I don’t believe anyone’s told it before. On TV, the previous Silurian stories were The Silurians (where they come up from underground to try to reclaim the earth from humanity, and the two races conflict while the Doctor despairs and wishes there was another way), The Sea Devils (where they come up from under the sea to try to reclaim the earth from humanity, and the two races conflict while the Doctor despairs and wishes there was another way), Warriors Of The Deep (where they come up from underground and under the sea to try to reclaim the earth from humanity, and the two races conflict while the Doctor despairs and wishes there was another way) and Chibnall’s own The Hungry Earth/Cold Blood (where they come up from underground to try to reclaim the earth from humanity, and the two races conflict while the Doctor despairs and wishes there was another way). Having an actual second plot for the Silurians is as unexpected as Status Quo discovering a fourth chord.

The story also makes use of its space far better than last week’s Dalek story. The Dalek story was a series of disconnected events that could have taken place anywhere (Prison Of The Daleks, Holiday Camp Of The Daleks, School Of The Daleks) or with any monster (Asylum Of The Cybermen, Asylum Of The Krotons, Asylum Of The Zygons) and with little or no motivation for any of the actions. By contrast here the Doctor has a clear goal, the setting arises naturally from the monster-of-the-week (the Silurians), the obstacles in the Doctor’s way mostly (though not all) arise naturally from the setting, and some of the solutions to problems are actual solutions requiring thought, rather than just waving a magic wand. One solution (throwing the ball for the triceratops to follow) is even set up earlier in the episode!

That may sound like damning with faint praise, but this kind of basic attention to craft is missing from much of the post-2005 series. If you were to show this and last week’s Dalek episode to someone who doesn’t know the show, they’d be able to tell that they were written to the same formula, and that at least one writer was consciously modelling himself on the other. Ask which was the multiple Hugo Award winner who had also created several critically acclaimed drama and comedy series, and which was universally regarded as one of the worst writers ever to work in TV, and I would be very surprised if they didn’t identify Chibnall as the better writer.

For the most part it’s a thoroughly unexceptionable, mildly entertaining piece of children’s fantasy TV. It’s pieced together out of bits of old Doctor Who episodes and Jurassic Park, but that’s not a bad thing.

The only problem — and one so bad it wrecks the whole thing — is that at the climax the Doctor deliberately and cold-bloodedly commits murder.

Now, admittedly, the person he murders is a mass-murderer himself, a thoroughly vile character with no redeeming traits, but until now the Doctor has never before killed in cold blood. He’s allowed villains to destroy themselves when their evil plans backfire, he’s killed in self-defence, he’s killed to defend his friends from immediate threats to their life, and he’s even blown up ships full of Daleks or Cybermen, though we can assume that both those were acts of war. But here, he deliberately made a fleet of missiles target themselves on a spaceship containing a defenceless man, who presented no physical threat and who it was entirely possible for him to save. That goes against the morality of the Doctor as established in pretty much every story since 1964 (he might have done it in 1963, before he mellowed out a bit).

Now, there have been a few fan explanations for this. The first is “oh, they’re obviously doing an arc where the Doctor becomes darker, in order to realise that he shouldn’t be darker and become lighter again”. As Nick Barlow said on twitter, “‘oh, the arc will deal with it and make sense’ is the meta version of ‘I’ll explain later’. ” On top of this, it’s the same explanation fans have been consistently using for every morally repugnant act the Doctor has committed since about 2007, and it’s not been true so far. Even if it were true, if you keep doing the ‘get darker just to get lighter’ story, you end up turning the Doctor into Batman, grimungritty version.

The second explanation is “it’s meant to show why the Doctor needs companions, to be his moral compass” — except he’s spent a handful of months away from Rory and Amy, and spent much of that time with other people. This interpretation turns the show from being one about someone who has spent thousands of years roaming the universe righting wrongs, ending injustice and bringing down corrupt governments armed with nothing more than his intellect and moral courage, to being one about a moral and intellectual simpleton who needs a permanent live-in carer watching over him all the time to remind him that blowing people up is wrong. Again, that doesn’t mean it isn’t the intended interpretation, but it is rather a departure from the programme I like.

And finally, there’s a suggestion made in passing by Millennium Dome in his review, where he suggests that this was the result of the effects of the Dalek nanites from last week’s episode. This has the advantages of a) being set up by something actually in the text, rather than something people are wanting to read in without evidence and b) actually excusing the murder, rather than leaving the Doctor as a murderer (no-one could be blamed for a murder commited because their mind was being controlled by Dalek nanites).

I think the third of those options is the most likely of them, but I wouldn’t put more than a 30% probability even on that. That’s partly because no-one in the episode expressed any disapproval of the Doctor’s actions — and normally, if the Doctor does something that we’re intended to think is wrong, or at least questionable, a companion character will act as a voice of the audience and berate him. But also, Millennium has a history of coming up with resolutions to problems set up in Doctor Who stories that are much more interesting than whatever is finally seen on screen.

I suspect, though, that this is just a series that has lost its moral centre to the point that no-one involved in the story thought to question whether its ‘hero’ should be murdering people or not. I hope I’m wrong…

18 Responses to “Doctor Who: Dinosaurs On A Spaceship”

  1. Prankster Says:

    I’ll cop to saying “they’re doing an arc about the Doctor getting too nasty” in the past, because, well, it really DOES seem like something they’ve been teasing for a while now. But it hasn’t really paid off yet, so it is a little hard to defend.

  2. Prankster Says:

    Also…”one of the worst writers ever to work in TV”? I’m no fan of Chibnall’s, but that seems, um, unduly harsh. Maybe it’s true of British television, but in that case I can only imagine a lot of British heads exploding on bearing witness to some of the stuff that gets broadcast over here…

  3. Hal Says:

    That was a very fair review, I must admit that the episode irritated me from the beginning so I wasn’t really paying close attention by a third of a way through yet you are right, this was the best of Chibnall’s scripts so far. Crap but not *Heinous* Crap. As my attention was elsewhere I had thought that Solomon could still have posed a threat so the Doctor’s actions were more justified and it wouldn’t have been out of character. I’m in two minds here, I didn’t find this as dreadful as Day of the Moon’s solution to the threat of the Silents yet you are right it *is* dubious (and you paid attention!), tho’ I’d argue against the Doctor’s actions in Remembrance being an act of war instead it was just the Doctor luring the Daleks into destroying themselves (seeing as the Daleks are never going to change, I can’t argue against that particular Doctor doing what he does, how many more would have to die because of the Daleks? Not that it stopped them tho’. Is it better for the Doctor never to destroy them even if he has the chance? I don’t know), either the Doctor bears the responsibility for the destruction of Skaro – knowing how Davros/the Daleks think – or he doesn’t, “act of war” seems to neat a get-out clause, y’know, in my opinion! Is this meant to be a “Dark Doctor” storyline? No man can tell. Well, after the events of Wedding were supposed to see the Doctor stepping back into the shadows and reconsidering the violence in his life (I seem to recall) one would think not but Amy and Rory are still there after God Complex ended their story neatly, so who knows? Interesting idea about the nanogenes.
    It was a fairly competent children’s show tho’ for my taste the Moffat Bingo grated too much. And the CGI dinosaurs were *boring*. Oh, and that “surprising” ending with Rory’s Dad becoming a traveller… Balls, indeed – it’d've been funnier if after all he’d been through he’d remained a homebody but that wouldn’t be “touching” would it?! Still, it could have been much worse. P. S. Pravda DWM? Ha. So True!

  4. Hal Says:

    Um, don’t know why I specified Remembrance of the Daleks there, as you hadn’t, what a memory I have! This week’s Moffat Who Bingo entries that stood out for me : 1. The Doctor is Irresistible, 2. Teleport(er)s, 3. The Doctor returns to visit Amy and Rory for no real reason, 4. Actors Who Cast Precisely to Type (David Bradley, Mark Williams, Rupert Wotthisname) and well, I actually think I may be wrong on this one as my memory is bad but 5. Logic Flaws (Yes, the Doctor isn’t in Solomon’s database but he is known to the ISA. Lucky for the wittle dinosaurs that!). Ah, enough of my drivel…

  5. Nick Says:

    It occurs to me that the combination of misogyny, risible dialogue and ridiculous story ideas makes Chibnall Who’s equivalent of Ben Steed on Blake’s 7. Sadly, nothing he’s written has been as unintentionally amusing as The Harvest Of Kairos.

  6. Me On The Mindless Ones « Sci-Ence! Justice Leak! Says:

    [...] Where I actually say some quite complimentary things about a new Doctor Who story — and one wr… [...]

  7. Karl Says:

    Back in 1985-6, Chris Chibnall was a leading member of our local Dr. Who group and was very knowledgable.
    I do think he panders to the lowest common denominator of television writing though; his ‘tough, violent women’ is one of the most extreme tv tropes of our times and it has worn VERY VERY thin indeed. As soon as Nefertiti started playing to the feminist gallery I knew this story was goung to be tiresome.
    Personally this tale reminded me too much of a hybrid version of Carnival of Monsters, The Ark and The Ark in Space.
    Except they were actually….GOOD.

  8. Lawrence Burton Says:

    Well, you’ve saved me the trouble of watching it when they stick it on Netflix, so thanks for that. The notion of a half-decent (or at least less dreadful than usual) Chibnall script still seems like a debate over which was the best episode of the Thundercats cartoon or which is the most engaging of all Skrewdriver’s albums, but I do enjoy your reviews.

  9. Spoilers Below Says:

    I’m not sure I can agree that engineering a situation in which your adversary kills himself is somehow less morally repugnant than killing him yourself.

    I may not like or agree with the Doctor’s actions, but they seem entirely keeping with his portrayal in this regeneration. I could see McCoy doing the same thing, albeit with the evil guy accidentally leaning on a button that activated the missile guidance systems, and a much cooler and casual walk off. ( http://doctorwhogifs.tumblr.com/post/14306432598/cool-guys-dont-look-at-explosions )

  10. Mercy Says:

    Pretty consistent with his portrayal in the reboot as a whole: he executes the Family of Blood too, and tries to murder the spider queen in Donna’s first episode – and she was unsuccessful in genocide!

    Really the most consistent explanation of the doctor’s behaviour in the new series is that he’s lying when he says that he’s The Man Who Never Would- or being generous, that he has a sense of morality that tells him he should avoid killing, but can’t commit to it in a lawless post time war universe. It’s not entirely unreasonable for a man detached from space and time: we don’t know if there are authorities he might hand solomon too after all. Or from the other perspective, someone with access to all of space and time, and hence a limitless array of possible legal systems, can’t escape responsibility for whatever punishment they mete out. He gets to decide who lives or dies either way.

    It mixes badly with the uncomplicated hero worship of the show, but the main issue I have is this: he’s tried before to redeem Davros and the Master in a blatant show of displaced guilt – he has to believe everyone deserves a second chance after wiping out his own species. So when he pulls the “no second chances” line more casually for less brilliant monsters, is that because he doesn’t see himself in mere human criminals?

  11. Don’t ever judge me by your standards « One-By-One Says:

    [...] and general discontent with The Doctors’ actions at the end of the episode (please reference here), this is what I came away with and continued thinking [...]

  12. Foxy Basra Says:

    @Karl: “the feminist gallery”? How is a one-note presentation of women as sexy face-beaters “feminist”?

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